by Adam Sedia The origin of poetry is inextricably tied to music. The earliest poems---the Homeric epics, the Chinese Book of Songs---were all lyrics to be sung. Because vowels allow the open voice to sing while consonants break the voice, the syllable defined the meter, setting the rhythm of the song. Thus, metered poetry---which is to say, all traditional poetry---is inextricably tied to syllabification. The syllable is the basic unit of poetry. It builds feet, which in turn build verses. Even verse constructed of non-uniform syllable quantities such as accentual verse in Old English epic poetry still presume the syllable as their basic unit, with the accented syllables defining meter. The only smaller unit of language in poetry, the sound, figures as a poetic device in alliteration and assonance. While in Old English poetry alliteration helps to quantify the meter, sounds, particularly consonants, on their own do not contribute to the musical rhythm, or meter, at least in English. Sometimes a syllable and a word are coterminous. This is the monosyllable. On its own, it seems unremarkable---an everyday feature of nearly every language. Yet monosyllabic words feature prominently in English. Indeed, among the world’s languages and Europe’s in particular, English contains an unusually high number of monosyllabic words, which can be found in every part of speech. A 2007 study conducted by the University of Lyon in France found English to have an average of approximately 1.5 syllables per word---roughly equivalent to both French and Mandarin Chinese, and far fewer than in German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. With syllabification as the basis of meter and English so heavily monosyllabic, would it not be expected to find monosyllabic words playing a prominent role in English verse? As it turns out, the monosyllable plays a powerful and not frequent enough role in affecting expression in English poetry. This essay explores the different ways in which exclusive or near-exclusive use of monosyllables does so, to variegated and indeed surprising effect. . Development of Monosyllables in English English was not always a strongly monosyllabic language. Centuries of development made it so. A critical element in this development revolves around the all-pervasive silent “e” in modern English. In many cases it is a vestige of earlier forms that pronounced vowel as a schwa. The opening lines of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English illustrates this: Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; To read these lines in their proper iambic pentameter requires observing some stark differences from modern pronunciation. First, the plural “shoures” (“showers”) and the past-tense “perced” (“pierced”) and “bathed” are pronounced as disyllables, with the final “e” pronounced as a schwa. Less apparently, “sote” and “rote” (“soft” and “root”), are also disyllables, with the final “e” as a schwa giving the lines a feminine ending. The same applies to “Aprille,” “droghte,” “Marche,” and “veyne,” but the final “e” elides with the following words that begin either in a vowel or in h, thus masking the second syllable. Significantly, all of these Middle English words are now pronounced as single syllables, illustrating English’s tendency to compress pronunciation into monosyllables, either dropping the final “e” altogether or converting it into a silent orthographical device that affects the pronunciation of a preceding vowel (distinguishing, for example, “kit” from “kite”). A special case of syllable compression involves the –ed suffix in the past tense of verbs. Pronouncing the suffix as a separate syllable persisted well into the seventeenth century, and in some verbs persists to this day. Consider the following line from John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis,” written in 1666: And armed Edwards look’d with anxious eyes, The contraction of “looked” to “look’d” indicates that Dryden would have regarded the word as disyllabic. Yet for the verse to conform to the poem’s iambic pentameter, “armed” must be pronounced as a disyllable as well: “armèd.” The meter throughout the poem demonstrates varying pronunciation of the –ed suffix: “judged,” “fired,” and “grieved” are all monosyllabic, identical to their current pronunciations; yet “stopp’d,” “seem’d,” “call’d,” and “oppress’d” are all contracted to accommodate the meter. This variance indicates that English was on its way to losing the separate pronunciation of the –ed suffix, but had not arrived there yet for all verbs. Verbs ending in a consonant followed by “t” (including double “t”) continue to retain the pronunciation of –ed as a separate syllable in their past tense because elision of the “t” and “d” is not natural. “Wanted” and “hunted,” for example, are disyllabic in “Annus Mirabilis” and remain so today. . Heavily Monosyllabic Verse With a wide palette of monosyllables available in every part of speech, English poets could construct entire verses from them alone. Not surprisingly, then, many works of English poetry utilize the monosyllable as a device without going so far as to construct an entire poem from monosyllables. Two types of partial monosyllabic content appear: either (1) an entirely monosyllabic section appears within a larger work or (2) the entire, usually shorter, work makes extensive, though not exclusive, use of monosyllables. An example of the first type appears in Shakespeare’s King John. In Act III, Scene 3, King John of England is about to order his retainer Hubert to kill Arthur, his nephew, a potential rival claimant to the throne. Before giving the order he tests Hubert’s loyalty, beginning the speech in four entirely monosyllabic lines: Hubert: I am much bounden to your majesty. King John: Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet: But thou shalt have; and creep time ne’er so slow, Yet it shall come for me to do thee good. I had a thing to say, — but let it go: The king is struck by Hubert’s profession of loyalty, and wryly states that Hubert’s loyalty will be proven by the deed he is about to ask him to perform. He then concludes by saying that he has an unspoken thought. The exclusive use of monosyllables in this passage give the meter a measured, hesitating feel. The king is carefully weighing his words as he prepares to order the murder of his own kin. As a dramatic device, the monosyllable perfectly captures the king’s cautious deliberation, even on the written page without the aid of thespian interpretation. The second type of partial monosyllabic usage appears in a short but famous poem by Robert Frost: . Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. . Although only the first and fourth lines are purely monosyllabic, nine of the remaining lines are monosyllabic except for a single polysyllabic word---in every case disyllabic except for the word “promises,” which is the longest word in the poem. The remaining five lines are still monosyllabic except for two disyllabic words. All in all, 89 of the poem’s 108 words are monosyllabic. The impression the monosyllables give is classic Frost: laconic, direct, unembellished---the stereotypical flinty New Englander. Frost gives a direct description without any emotional effusions or descriptive flourishes, directing the reader to the substance of the description rather than the beauty of the language used. The poetic focus here is on the scenery and the action, not the description. The sparsity of the monosyllables also reflects the starkness of the New England winter, a time of bare trees and fallow fields and colorless snow-covered landscapes. In this very subtle and very skillful way the poetic language complements the poem’s subject, conveying by pronunciation the atmosphere it describes. . Totally Monosyllabic Verse While Frost’s poem is more than 80 percent monosyllabic, it still uses disyllables and even one trisyllable when needed to achieve its desired expression. But writing a poem entirely in monosyllables requires strict discipline; the poet must forego common words like “only” and “little,” most participles and gerunds, and even many prepositions (“before,” “after,” “into,” . . .). Writing a successful poem entirely in monosyllables would truly constitute an achievement, but has it been done? As it turns out, yes---at least twice. Only two well-known poems---at least that this author has been able to locate---consist entirely of monosyllables. Both of them use the device to great effect, and are certainly worth exploring here. The first of these is the famous Elegy written by Chidiock Tichborne (1562-1586), written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution for his involvement in the Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth I. The evening before he was to be hanged, drawn and quartered---that is, castrated and disemboweled while still conscious---he sent correspondence to his wife with the following poem: . Elegy My prime of youth is but a frost of cares, My feast of joy is but a dish of pain, My crop of corn is but a field of tares, And all my good is but vain hope of gain; The day is past, and yet I saw no sun, And now I live, and now my life is done. My tale was heard and yet it was not told, My fruit is false, and yet my leaves are green, My youth is spent and yet I am not old, I saw the world and yet I was not seen; My thread is cut and yet it is not spun, And now I live, and now my life is done. I sought my death and found it in my womb, I looked for life and saw it was a shade, I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb, And now I die, and now I was but made; My glass is full, and now my glass is runne, And now I live, and now my life is done. . This is impressive work for any twenty-four year-old, let alone one under the stress of knowing he was soon to be gruesomely butchered to death. Here the narrative voice is first-person, Tichborne himself meditating on his limbic existence, contrasting his youth with the death sentence that overshadows him. Though he is in the prime of his life, he is as good as dead. Three sixains of iambic pentameter---a total of 180 monosyllabic words---is impressively consistent, yet throughout the poem the device never renders the language strained or awkward. Instead, the expression is completely natural. The monosyllabic phrasing, as with Shakespeare, conveys a sense of measure and deliberation in the narration, slowing the pace of the voice and thus conferring on it a solemn and staid demeanor appropriate for its subject. The monosyllables also foreclose any elaborate or technical language, restricting the description to a very basic vocabulary. This, in turn, conveys a sense of sobriety and frankness, an acknowledgment of harsh reality divorced from any superficiality of emotion or erudition. Indeed, monosyllables seem perfect for the rendering of the Elegy’s subject matter. The other poem was written nearly four centuries later, across the Atlantic, by a black American woman. Rather than musing on death, it describes a scene of life. Yet despite its great differences in time, place, authorship, and subject, it achieves a large measure of its effect by consisting entirely of monosyllables. This poem is Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous 1959 poem, “We Real Cool”: . We Real Cool The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel. We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon. . Much has been written on this simple poem of eight lines and a mere twenty-four syllables, and indeed it presents unexpectedly complex layers of meaning. This analysis, however, will focus only on the effect achieved by Brooks’s use of entirely monosyllabic words. The narrative voice of the poem is not Brooks herself, but seven pool players she observes at a dive-bar called The Golden Shovel. The tone here is not the mournful introspection of Tichborne’s Elegy, but a boastful reveling in irresponsibility, crime, alcoholism, and libertinism. The short, clipped monosyllables are confrontational, even threatening, like shots of gunfire, perfectly capturing the mindset that perpetrates the actions described. And in the final line Brooks presents the consequences of the pool players’ delinquency: “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23.) Even though the impending death of the men is portrayed in a sentence of three monosyllables like the rest of the poem, that final line assumes a different character from the boasting of the previous lines. Its terseness presents the sense of the abrupt end for which the narrators are destined. Indeed, the entire poem through syllabification conveys the Hobbesian “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence of savage man. . Conclusion The monosyllable has a special place in English and in English poetry specifically. No other length of word can so easily be put to constant or exclusive use in a poem. Avoiding monosyllables would require omitting all articles, many important prepositions, and most forms of basic verbs such as “be,” “have,” “do,” and “see.” Any expression beyond a mere few clipped sentences becomes impossible without these. Not so with the monosyllable. As Frost and Tichborne show, very eloquent and stirring verses can be assembled mostly or even entirely from monosyllables. The exclusive use of monosyllables by both Tichborne and Brooks two very different poets in very different places and times writing very different poems---demonstrates its versatility as a poetic device. It is surprising, then, that only their two well-known poems employ it exclusively. Monosyllabic verse, then, presents a still-unexplored avenue of poetic exploration, one that may yield both surprising and admirable results. . .